Seventy Times Seven
Five months after Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech—the worst shooting in U.S. history—the community of Blacksburg, Virginia, was given a chance to forgive. That opportunity came when Martin Doblmeier, the award-winning director of Bonhoeffer and other spiritual documentaries, agreed to screen his newest film for the campus.
The Power of Forgiveness is a collection of seven short stories showing the limits, difficulties, healing qualities, and unforeseen effects an act of forgiveness can have in the lives of the people who give it. The 78-minute documentary features interviews with forgiveness experts like Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, Thomas Moore, and Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as new research into the psychological and physical benefits of forgiveness. A speech by Desmond Tutu on the role of forgiveness in ending apartheid is included in the DVD's special features.
In the two years Doblmeier spent crafting the film, he traveled across the globe—from Northern Ireland to Ground Zero to the Amish countryside. Along the way, he encountered powerful stories of healing and freedom, bitterness and loss. He was even confronted with his own misconceptions and, he says, his life will never be the same.
The Power of Forgiveness was recently screened at Virginia Tech and the headquarters of the United Nations, among other places. Is it gratifying to see your film make that kind of impact right off the bat?
Martin Doblmeier: I think people are responding to the idea of forgiveness as an antidote to all the anger and vitriolic behavior going on around us. You see it in movies, in the news—even on the highway when you're driving. And I think a lot of people believe it's time to go in a different direction.
So I don't take it as an accomplishment on my part to have had the chance to show the film in these great places. All those people have one thing in common: they are dealing with profound hurts, and they'd like to explore the possibility of how forgiveness might be able to help in some way.
What attracted you to making a documentary on forgiveness?
Doblmeier: I was invited to a conference in the fall of 2004 where people were presenting research on the clinical aspects of forgiveness—psychologists, family therapists, people like that. And what I saw there was something very new.
The faith traditions have talked about the virtues of forgiveness for centuries. But there I saw the health sciences discovering forgiveness as a totally new science for them. And the intersection of those two moments made it a really good time to do a film on forgiveness.
In addition to the health scientists, you've included conversations with people like Elie Wiesel and Thich Nhat Hanh. How important was it to have a variety of faith traditions represented in your documentary?
Doblmeier: I wanted to have at least a sense of the different faith traditions—both to see how they were similar and to see how they were different. Forgiveness is valued, it's held up, in all the faiths. But it's seen a little bit differently in each one.
In Buddhist tradition, for example, you don't speak so much about forgiveness, but about compassion. In Judaism, which has a stronger law base, Jews are very clear about saying that certain requirements must be met before you can offer forgiveness. And there's also a formula for giving the forgiveness—if you don't give the forgiveness after three requests, you're guilty now for not having given forgiveness!